Renaissance Sculpture & Relief
Small Pilasters of
Sta. Maria Church
Having thus succinctly traced the historical succession of the great sculptors of Italy, all of whom, it must constantly be borne in mind, were ornamentists also, we proceed to point out some few of those lessons which may, as we conceive, be derived from a study of their works by the artist and art workman. One of the most peculiar and most fascinating qualities of the best Cinquecento ornament in relief is the skill with which those by whom it was wrought availed themselves of the play of light and shade produced by infinite variations of plane, not only in surfaces parallel to the grounds fron which the ornament was raised, but brought to a tangent with it at ever-varying angles of impact.
The difference in effect between a scroll of the volute form, in which the relief gradually diminishes from the starting of the volute to its eye, and one in which the relief is uniform throughout, is very great; and it is to their undeviating preference for the former over the latter, that the Cinquecento artists are indebted for the infallibly pleasing results they attained alike in their simplest and most complicated combinations of spiral forms.
This refined appreciation of delicate shades of relief in sculpture was carried to its greatest perfection by Donatello, whose authority in matters of taste was held in the highest possible esteem by the contemporary Florentines, and whose example was followed with respect and devotion by all classes of artists. Not only was lie the first to practise the bassissimro relievo, in which the effect of pro- jection and of rounded modelling is obtained within apparently impracticable limits of relief, but he was the first to combine that style of work with mezzo and alto relievo; thus maintaining an almost pictorial division of his subject into several planes. Too good a master of his craft to ever overstep the special conventions of sculpture, Donatello enriched the Florentine practice of the Cinque-centisti with many elements derived from the sister art of Painting. These inventions, for they are almost worthy of the name, though arrived at only through a sedulous study of the antique, were adopted and imitated with the greatest avidity by the ornamentists of the period; and hence we may trace some of the most peculiar and striking technical excellence of the best Renaissance carving and modelling.
Sta. Maria, Venice
Domenico da Mantua.
Ultimately, and at its acme of perfection, this system of regular arrangement of ornament in planes was so ingeniously managed in relation to light and shade, that, viewed from a distance, the relievo presented only certain points symmetrically disposed with reference to some dominant geometrical figures. An approach of a few paces served to bring to the sense of vision the lines and figures connecting the points of greatest salience. A yet nearer approach revealed the leafage and delicate tendrils necessary to convey a tangible idea of the type of nature selected for convention, while no inspection could be too close to test the artist's perfect appreciation of the refinements of surface texture.
The "cisellatura", or "chasing", of the best Italian Cinquecento ornament, such as may be seen in the Church of the Miracoli, Venice (Figs. 1, 8, 9, Plate LXXIV.), by the Lombardi; in the Church of Sta. Maria del Popolo (Fig. 1, Plate LXXVI.), Rome, by Sansovino; in the gates of the Baptistery, Florence (Fig. 3, Plate LXXV.), by Ghiberti; in the carvings of San Michele di Murano (Figs. 4, 6, Plate LXXIV: the, Scuola di San Marco (Fig. 2, Plate LXXIV.); the Scala dei Giganti (Figs. 5, 7, Plate LXXIV.); and other buildings at Venice, is beyond all praise.
The fibres of a leaf or tendril are never misdirected, nor is Nature's tendency to grace in growth perverted or misapprehended. Smoothness and detail are never added excepting where they have some specific function to perform; and while labour is so prodigally bestowed as to show that every additional touch was a labour of love, it is never thrown away, as is too often the case in the present day, in converting those portions of a design which should be secondaries or tertiaries in point of interest into primaries.
In the hands of artists less profoundly impressed than was Donatello with a sense of the just limit of convention in sculpture, the importation of pictorial elements into bas-relief soon degenerated into confusion. Even the great Ghiberti marred the effect of many of his most graceful compositions by the introduction of perspective, and accessories copied too directly from nature. In many of the orna- mental sculptures of the Certosa the fault is exaggerated until monuments, which should impress the spectator with grave admiration at their beauty and dignity, serve only to amuse him-resembling dolls' houses peopled by fairies, decked with garlands, hung with tablets, and fancifully overgrown with foliage, rather than serious works of Art commemorating the dead, or dedicated to sacred uses.
Another reproach which may with some justice be addressed to many such monuments is the incongruity of the association of ideas connected with their purport, and those suggested by the ornaments displayed in their friezes, pilasters, panels, spandrils, and other enriched features. Tragic and comic masques, musical instruments, semi-Priapic terminals, antique altars, tripods, and vessels of libation, dancing amorini, and hybrid marine monsters and chimeras, harmonise but ill with monuments reared in consecrated edifices or dedicated to religious rites. This fault of the confusion of things sacred and profane may not, however, be altogether justly laid upon the shoulders of the artists of the Renaissance, whose works served but to reflect the dominant spirit of an age in which the revival of mythologic symbolism was but a protest against the hampering trammels of ascetic tradition erected into dogmatism under the rulers of the East, and endorsed by the Church during those centuries when its ascendancy over an ignorant and turbulent population was at its greatest height. The minds of even the most religious men were imbued with such incongruous associations in the fourteenth century; and it is not necessary to go further than the "Commedia" of Dante, which all the world of literature has designated as the Divine Epic, to recognise the tangled skeins of Gothic and classical inspiration with which the whole texture of contemporary literature was interwoven.
To the architect, the study of Italian Cinquecento ornament in relief is of no less utility than it can possibly be to the sculptor, since in no style has ornament ever been better spaced out, or arranged to contrast more agreeably with the direction of the adjacent architectural lines by which it is bounded and kept in subordination. Rarely, if ever, is an ornament suitable for a horizontal position placed in a vertical one, or vice versa; and rarely, if ever, are the proportions of the ornaments and the mouldings, or the styles and rails, by which regularity and symmetry are given to the whole, at variance with one another. In Plates LXXIV., LXXV., and LXXVI., are collected a series of specimens, in the majority of which gracefulness of line, and a highly artificial, though apparently natural, distribution of the ornament upon its field, are the prevailing characteristics.
The Lombardi, in their works at the Church of Sta. Maria del Miracoli, Venice (Plate LXXIV., Figs. 1, 8, 9; Plate LXXVI., Fig. 2); Andrea Sansovino at Rome (Plate LXXVI., Fig. 1); and Domenico and Bernardino di Mantua, at Venice (Plate LXXIV., Figs. 5 and 7), attained the highest perfection in these respects. At a subsequent period to that in which they flourished the ornaments were generally wrought in more uniformly high relief, and the stems and tendrils were thickened, and not so uniformly tapered, the accidental growth and play of nature were less sedulously imitated, the field of the panel was more fu1ly covered with enrichments, and its whole aspect made more bustling and less refined. The sculptor's work as- serted itself in competition with the architect's: the latter in self-defence, and to keep the sculpture down, soon began to make his mouldings heavy: and a more ponderous style altogether crept into fashion. Of this tendency to plethora in ornament we already perceive indications in much of the Genoese work represented in Plate LXXV., Figs. 1, 2, 4, 5, 8, 9, and 11; and in Plate LXXVI., Figs. 4, 5, 7, 8, and 10. Fig. 6 in the last-mentioned plate, from the celebrated Martinengo Tomb, at Brescia, also clearly exhibits this tendency to filling up.